CBC Investigates

City releases details about dangerous goods on London trains

Londoners can finally get a glimpse of the dangerous goods that pass through the city on the country's major railways.

London Mayor Matt Brown commits to making public the dangerous goods list after a CBC London Investigation

A tanker car forms part of a long Canadian National freight train rolling through a grade crossing on Maitland Street in London, Ont. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

For the first time, Londoners are getting a glimpse into the dangerous goods passing through the city almost daily on the country's two major railways.

London is book-ended at its north and south ends by two of Canada's busiest rail lines together accounting for dozens of trains traveling along the city's 65 rail crossings each day. 

A list of the top ten hazardous materials shipped through the municipality on Canadian National (CN) and Canadian Pacific (CP) trains was provided by the companies to the City of London at the start of June 2017, in accordance with a law enacted following the Lac-Mégantic disaster.

CBC London requested the information, first by phone then using Canada's Access to Information law, but was denied at first.

CN rail yard in London, Ont., near Brydges St. and Egerton St. (Ed Middleton/CBC News)

After showing city officials that the public in Windsor and Toronto had the right to know what passed through their communities, city officials realized they had made a mistake.

"For a couple of years now we've gotten a list of what's flowing through our community," said Dave O'Brien, London's manager of security and emergency management.

"I've subsequently learned that I can make part of that report public and we will be reviewing to determine next steps."

The Lac-Mégantic disaster involved a train carrying crude oil tankers levelled the town's core and killed 47 people in 2013.

Mayor commits to posting dangerous goods list

Mayor Matt Brown on Monday said London should post that list online. 

"I don't see why we wouldn't put that information on our website. I don't see why we wouldn't share it as publicly as we can," Brown said after appearing on CBC's London Morning. 

"Londoners deserve to know what's passing through the city. These are dangerous chemicals and there are safety protocols, but we should still know what's going through the city."

Until this morning, the city said it would look into, but not commit to, posting that list, as is done in Windsor and Toronto.

Which dangerous goods?

The public reports show that 10 per cent of shipments on CP's rail line, which runs through the centre of London then onward to Detroit, are loaded with dangerous material.

At 14 percent of all freight, quantities of dangerous goods are slightly higher on CN trains, which enter the city from the east near Veterans Memorial Parkway before travelling through the south end of downtown London and onward to Sarnia. 

The top dangerous products are:

  • Liquified petroleum gases (CN).
  • Alcohols, Not Otherwise Specified (CP).
  • Sulfuric acid (CN).
  • Petroleum crude oil (CP).
  • Ethanol & gasoline mixtures (CN).

City emergency officials get a more fulsome list, but only after signing a non-disclosure agreement that prohibits the city from sharing that information with the public.

Graeme Norval, a University of Toronto professor of chemical engineering and member of the Ontario Ministry of Labour's prevention council. (Supplied photo)

Some of the goods being shipped through London have low flash points, meaning they can easily ignite.

"Should we be worried about these chemicals? Yes. Are they a part of our daily lives? Yes," said Graeme Norval, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Toronto and a member of the Ontario Ministry of Labour's prevention council.

The train that exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Que., in 2013 was hauling crude oil tankers. The explosion levelled the downtown core, killing 47 people. In Ontario a CN train also loaded with crude derailed near Gogama in 2015, causing a fire and a massive spill cleanup.

"What you want is everyone that's dealing with the chemicals to deal with them with respect. It's a mindset," said Norval.

Report guides emergency training in London

City of London emergency responders recently ran a training exercise simulating a train disaster east of Wonderland Road and west of Wharncliffe Road with CN and CP working closely to practise their response to a train disaster.

"We chose this location specifically because it impacts multiple facets of our community: large-scale residential, high rise, vulnerable populations. We walked through the course of the day, how we would manage the impacts from the community perspective," O'Brien said.

He explained the dangerous goods reports helps guide training and potential responses.

"We review the contents of that report to see if there's anything we're not familiar with or haven't heard about, and how we would address it should anything happen," O'Brien said.